Securing an excellent work experience opportunity alone isn't enough; demonstrating to employers how you squeezed the most from it, counts too. Sheffield Hallam University’s employability adviser Jill Valentine explains how.

Volunteering, summer jobs, internships, work shadowing, insight days – these are just some of the ways you can gain valuable work experience while at university. Despite all these opportunities, fifty-two per cent of graduates surveyed by Which? University* said they felt they’d been rejected by a job because of a lack of experience.

Therefore it's important that you build up such experience through some of the methods above, in order to equip yourself with the right skills.

Once you secure work experience, it's worth doing all you can to make sure you use the opportunity to complement or increase your work competency.

Before you start your work experience, think about the following:


1. Be clear about what you want to gain from your experience

There are a number of reasons to gain work experience. It might be an opportunity to explore different roles within a particular sector, build a network of contacts, learn new skills, or with a view to secure a permanent role within the company.

Start off by thinking about what you want to achieve from the experience, to help reach your potential. 


2. Research the company and your role

Explore the company’s website so you are familiar with its target customers or audience, mission statement, stakeholders, policies, and career structure.

Use this knowledge to help you understand your role and responsibilities, and how they fit within the wider company. Try to identify the key people within the organisation, as well as those you will be working with. You can even look them up via LinkedIn to see more about what their role involves, and how they got to that point.


3. Plan how to introduce yourself

Use your introduction as an opportunity to create a good first impression. Introduce yourself by saying a little about you, explaining your role in the company, your skills, and what you are planning to get from the experience.


'Think about and practise what image you want to give.' Jessica Pickard (gradcore)

During your work experience


4. Consider the work experience as an extended interview

Throughout your time in the position, be open, friendly, professional, proactive, and polite.

Listen and learn as much as you can and don’t be afraid to ask colleagues for help if you don’t understand something. Doing so may save you doing a job incorrectly and having to redo it. 


“At BP, more than 60% of employees are recruited from the pool of students gaining work experience with them.” David Barker (project Director Of Placer)


Find out practical advice on what to do while on work experience


5. Get involved

Find out as much as you can about the different projects running within the organisation. Within these, there may be smaller, but useful jobs you can get stuck into. These can include conducting desk research, organising meetings, writing the minutes, collating feedback, proofreading, updating social media etc.

Every role counts, even if they're not apparent from the outset.


6. Explore different roles within the organisation

Find out about other job roles that appeal to you that you're not familiar with. You might be surprised about all the different roles involved. If you're unsure what someone does, ask them.

Work shadowing is an excellent way of seeing a job in action, even if it's not necessarily one you plan to pursue yourself in the future. Just having the basic knowledge of what it involves can benefit you in other ways, e.g. knowing what makes a developer's job difficult (and why) will teach you what not to do when working with them in the future.

“The best way to get ahead is by doing the little jobs well.” Tom Riordan (chief Executive Of Leeds City Council)


7. Keep a reflective diary 

There are many forms that this can take. You can keep a traditional handwritten diary, make notes on your phone, or even keep a blog.

Whatever you choose, remember that you're not recording exactly what you have done or experienced. It's about reflecting on what you learn about yourself and how you're developing your skills.


“I realised that I have some great problems-solving skills, but I need to work on my presentation skills as I have little confidence to talk in large groups.” Medicine Student


You can download our free work experience print-out diary

After your work experience


8. Say ‘thank you’ (this can go a long way)

Send a thank you card or email at the end of your work experience to show your appreciation for having you (and to leave a positive last impression).

Make it personal by including what you enjoyed, and the skills you gained. It might be useful to stay in touch via LinkedIn, email, or social media.


9. Reflect on your experience…

Try to identify from your experience the scenarios that will demonstrate your competencies. Employers often ask about these in interviews.

These questions usually begin, 'Can you tell me about a time when you worked under pressure?', or 'Can you or demonstrated good communication skills, or led a team?'.


10. Update your CV

While the experience is still fresh in your mind, focus on the skills you gained, whether organisation, planning, or working in a team. As well as listing the skills you learned or honed, flush out what you achieved as a result. For example, completing a task ahead of deadline or overcoming a particular obstacle.

Compile one CV that lists all of these skills, and then use this to work from when pulling together a tailored CV for each new job you apply for.

About Jill

Jill Valentine is an employability adviser at Sheffield Hallam University, which has one of the largest careers and employability services for universities in the country. She also works as a freelance careers writer.

* Data source: the June 2018 Which? Graduate Survey surveyed 1,020 graduates from UK universities, and was conducted by Youthsight (May-June 2018). Respondents were asked to rate their university experience, particularly their studies, student finance, accommodation and graduate employment market.